The history and origins of the Olympic Games take us back into the past of Ancient Greece and the legends of the heroic athletes visiting the city of Olympia every four years to take part in one of the most important and grandiose athletic competitions of the ancient world next to the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Held in honor of the father of the ancient Greek gods, Zeus, the Ancient Olympics were first recorded in 776 BC and were celebrated for more than 1,000 years, until the Emperor of Byzantium Theodosius I suppressed the Games in favor of the new Christian religion that would become the official state religion.
In comparison to the modern Games, the Olympics in ancient Greece were both a religious celebration and an athletic panhellenic meeting, which featured artistic competitions (sculptors and poets would congregate at each olympiad to display their works of art to would-be patrons) and fewer athletic events than today. The only competition held during the ancient times was, according to the Greek traveller Pausanias who wrote in 175 AD., the stadion race, a race of about 190 metres (189m), measured after the feet of Hercules.
Gradually, in 724 BC the 2-stade race (384 m.) was introduced, and four years later a long-distance run which ranged from 7 to 24 stades (1,344 m. to 4,608 m.). The fourth type of race involved runners wearing full amor, which was a 2-4 stade race (384 m. to 768 m.), used to build up speed and stamina for military purposes. In 708 BC, the pentathlon and wrestling were also included in the Games. Boxing was added to the Games in 688 BC, while the tethrippon (a race carriage with four horses) was introduced in 680 BC. Some 32 years later horse racing and the pancration also became parts of the Olympics. Over time, more and more sports were added to the Olympics’ list, while their duration expanded from one to five days.
The Games were always held at Olympia rather than alternating at different locations, while only free men who spoke the ancient Greek language were allowed to compete. However, there is one particularly well known case of a woman called Kallipatira, who disobeyed the strict rules and was the first woman ever to set foot in the Olympic Stadium. Being the mother of a competing athlete, Kallipatira wanted to admire her son’s performance, and therefore, dressed up as a man to be able to enter the Stadium. Her admiration finally betrayed her gender but she was not punished by the Hellanodikes because of her family’s tradition in winning the Olympics.
The prizes for the victors were wreaths of laurel leaves instead of money, and city walls would be demolished for them to enter. Their names were praised and their deeds were heralded and chronicled so that future generations could appreciate their accomplishments.
Homer’s epics provide the earliest and greatest description of athletic competitions in Western literature, while the earliest myths regarding the origin of the Games are recounted by the Greek historian, Pausanias. According to him, the dactyl Herakles (not to be confused with the son of Zeus) and two of his brothers raced at Olympia. He crowned the victor with a laurel wreath, which explains the traditional prize given to Olympic champions.The other Olympian gods (named after their permanent residence on Mount Olympus), would also engage in wrestling, jumping and running contests. Another myth, this one occurring after the aforementioned myth, is attributed to Pindar. He claims the festival at Olympia involved Pelops, king of Olympia and eponymous hero of Peloponnesus, and Herakles, the son of Zeus. The story goes that after completing his labors, Herakles established an athletic festival to honor his father. Pelops, using trickery, and the help of Poseidon, won a chariot race against a local king and claimed the king’s daughter, Hippodamia as his prize.
As far as their early history is concerned, the first Games began as an annual foot race of young women in competition for the position of priestess for the goddess Hera in Olympia, a sanctuary site for Greek deities. The Heraea Games, the first recorded competition for women in the Olympic Stadium, were held as early as the sixth century BC. By the time of the Classical Greek culture, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the games were restricted to male participants.
The Olympic Games were part of the Panhellenic Games, four separate games held at two- or four-year intervals, but arranged so that there was at least one set of games every year. The Olympic Games were the most important and more prestigious ritual in ancient times, followed by the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games.
Besides boosting the athletic spirit, the Olympics provided a commons means of counting time in ancient Greece. The historian Ephorus, who lived in the fourth century BC, is believed to have established the use of Olympiads to count years and put an end to the confusion among cities-states when trying to determine dates.
The Greek tradition of athletic nudity was introduced in 720 BC, either by the Spartans or by the Megarian Orsippus, and this was adopted early in the Olympics as well. This is perhaps one of the reasons why women were not allowed to enter or watch the Games. The word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek root “gymnos” meaning nude; the literal meaning of “gymnasium” is “school for naked exercise”.